You might notice something familiar about the poster for Stephen Frears’s upcoming Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. To the left of Ben Foster’s face are the words “CHAMPION HERO LEGEND CHEAT,” and while this effectively articulates what makes the disgraced cyclist such a compelling figure, the inspiration for the tag line is instantly recognisable. Like so many other efforts from recent years, The Program arguably owes a debt to the most surprisingly influential movie poster of the past decade: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was likewise represented on the poster for 2010’s The Social Network as “PUNK PROPHET GENIUS BILLIONAIRE TRAITOR.”

The Social Network poster was the work of Neil Kellerhouse, the go-to graphic designer for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, noted for his minimalist technique and unconventional use of type. Although The Social Network didn’t invent the GOOD THING GOOD THING BAD THING tag line format – examples can be seen in the promotional materials for Abel Ferrera’s original Bad Lieutenant (“GAMBLER THIEF JUNKIE KILLER COP”) or 24 Hour Party People (“GENIUS POET TWAT”) – Kellerhouse’s striking design rippled throughout the increasingly homogeneous world of movie posters. It is a world, incidentally, where the disembodied heads of movie stars float menacingly over landscapes for no particular reason.

Expanding on the work he did for Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here, Kellerhouse placed type directly on top of Jesse Eisenberg’s face in two main designs, including the terrific YOU DON’T GET TO 500 MILLION FRIENDS WITHOUT MAKING A FEW ENEMIES. This bold but austere approach was a great match for Fincher’s film and also complemented the trailer, which was similarly innovative and much imitated. Following the promotional campaign’s visibility and popularity, the lots-of-words-over-the-protagonist’s-face design became commonplace: within a year, the concept popped up everywhere: The King’s Speech, Thor, Salt, Morning Glory, The Adjustment Bureau, The Imitation Game. Even Kellerhouse himself went back to the same well with the Criterion Collection reissue of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

As a consequence of its success, The Social Network’s once-impressive poster design is now as much of a cliche as blue and orange colour schemes or romantic leads standing back-to-back. It wearily joins other posters of dubious influence, from The Truman Show (photo mosaics) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(missing eyes) to For Your Eyes Only (splayed legs framing the protagonist, sexism).
This journey from marvel to bore in less than half a decade demonstrates that movie posters are ultimately little different from the features they’re trying so very hard to promote: someone comes up with an original, well-executed idea, others attempt to replicate the formula with diminishing returns, someone else decides to reject the idea in favour of trying something new, and we start all over again. As depressing patterns of behaviour go, it’s strangely encouraging.